I was considering doing a retrospective aimed at high-tech as portrayed in science-fiction films when I started re-watching this film. It’s really hard to focus on just one of the layers of this movie without being amazed by the rest. There’s so much that this movie gets right that so many other movies strive to get just one of these aspect made half as good. Whether by chance, talent, accident, genius or all of the above, everything works on the original, the best and the scariest horror sci-fi of them all.
Alien is director Ridley Scott’s opus as it’s H.R. Giger’s as it’s Sigourney Weaver’s as it’s screenwriter Dan O’Bannon as well as the entire production crew and cast. It’s got tendrils that span not only in several sequels, more of them less filling that its predecessors and there’s all sort of reveals and implications as the story has been expounded upon. I will ignore all of them here to the point of contradiction. It also has the dubious honour on being a blatant example of a Hollywood franchise taking an artist’s work and branding it only to later re-work, package it and commercialize it ad infinitum. Yes, it’s a problematic fave but I am isolating this review from the later outcome and the next instalments. Although I do love the sequel for completely different reasons, I think it’s no longer in the same genre. We go into Alien the way we went in the first time. Completely alone.
I think this movie has done nothing but get better with age. It is unhurried, it knows how to use the silence to its advantage. When sound breaks in, it’s hushes, whispers and hums. Give some credit to pre-CGI George Lucas, who was far more inventive with a small budget: A wall with humming behind it is always a good way to make a corridor feel part of a larger structure. Ridley Scott and his team are also carefully minimalistic with music. You barely hear a note until you must absolutely hear something.
I considered this movie for a retrospective on high tech portrayed effectively in film – the movie does not have holographic images or even high resolution monitors. Those would not appear on a ship which is built for industrial use. You would get functionality, not style, nor innovation. The Nostromo transports refined ore. It’s not a luxury liner. Ever boarded a modern boat? Private luxury yachts can get pretty fancy. Ever boarded a cargo ship? Yes, huge engines and heavy machinery but the controls are functional at best.
The attention payed to empty space is the reason why the movie works so well as a horror film. We have these vast, huge ship with very constrained corridors and this dark and dank interiors to play with. There’s no reason to light up every single corner in a giant freighter. There’s just so many places to hide. Think of a large oil tanker out in the ocean. It has a rather small occupancy to space ratio. The small crew is not trained to deal with threats. There’s no former special forces crew member. The circumstances are ideal for a nightly predator like the Xenomorph.
Now, honestly, H.R. Giger’s Xenomorph is a masterful creation that has been analyzed extensively through the years and I don’t believe I can add anything new. The alien species wiki defines it as “an extraterrestrial endoparasitoid species with multiple life cycles”. Adding to that, “An endoparasitoid is a creature that lives in a host during the early stage of its life and ultimately kills the host.” The actual film version is attributed to Dan O’Bannon, Ridley Scott and Ronald Shusett based on the design by H. R. Giger and Carlo Rambaldi. The reproduction through implantation of an endo-parasitic embryo into a living host via the infamous Facehugger will always feel like basically the definition of the most horrible death imaginable.
Further down the franchise, a lot of future films had the luxury of having characters that knew or had a hint of what was coming to them. However, that became a bit of hindrance… A lot of prequel films try to capture the novelty by going back to before the first move. The fear of the first contact is something that Alien exclusively has, but the audience is already primed for what they’re going to see. You can’t possibly recreate the experience of Alien for the first time again, but you can come very close by re-watching the movie after so many years. The lightning-in-a-bottle is still there. Furthermore, age seems to add something vintage to it.
Extremely recommended with no reservations. I’d recommend you watch it even if you are not a fan of the genre but want a great movie to watch. Alien is a classic in both sci-fi and horror so fans of either have seen it already. It is slow-burn, it is awe-inspiring, it is minimalistic and effective. Its sets are aged, rusted, damaged and worn out. Its cast of characters are worn down, tired, fighting a company contract where employees that are part of management get bonuses while the ones doing menial and dirty work only get standard pay. It’s realistic as much as it is futuristic in a way that is more function than it is style. That is something you can only say of only a slim number of science-fiction feature films. Add horror to sci-fi and the silence of space becomes an asset. In science-fiction, you might lose the audience when it gets too quiet. In horror, you’ll have their full attention.
That will do for now.